Riding into town with a new approach to the Western
The Sydney Morning Herald
By Brian McFarlane
August 26, 2022
Allen & Unwin, $32.99
As a life-long fan of Westerns, whose favourite film is John Ford’s The Searchers, I am always interested in their settings, atmosphere and key narratives, and am also taken by the way they offer variants on the latter. For instance, there are comedy Westerns, musical Westerns, romantic dramas set out West, as well as the more usual action-packed sagas.
Given this potential for genre hybridity, I couldn’t help but wonder what a book that describes itself on its cover as “a feminist Western” might offer. The answer is, quite a lot.
Kathryn Hore, author of The Stranger, had much childhood exposure to Westerns, especially spaghetti Westerns and those featuring Clint Eastwood. The film her book most notably recalls is probably Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter (1973) in which a stranger rides into a remote mining village to deal with long-suppressed secrets of its past, and with the violence that re-emerges in their wake. There is even a character called Old Josey in Hore’s novel, echoing another Eastwood film, The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), in which again the idea of the past catching up is a key plot element.
However much it may have been influenced by such famous predecessors, Hore’s first novel offers a highly readable variation on what we may normally expect of the Western. What we’ve not been led to expect is that the Stranger who rides into the remote, stone-walled town will be a woman, dressed as a man and equipped with gun and whip, both of which she will prove to be adept at wielding.
There have been some strong-minded women in film Westerns but very few as key protagonist; the recent film of The Drover’s Wife is a rare one. In the novel, the Stranger is a formidable, unnamed woman, and she attracts the attention of the young woman narrator, Chelsea.
Chelsea’s mamma died of the illness that led to the expulsion of her “da” into that outer world. She has a few friends but is largely constrained by Granger. With the coming of the Stranger, she becomes more aware of what a woman can achieve. Granger’s hold over her will be tested and her own sexual preference involving the hotel keeper’s daughter Suze will make itself felt.
The town’s name is Darkwater, echoing both its secret-ridden past and its problems with water. A great deal is going on in Darkwater, as there has been in its past, with major crimes handled in various ways. Curiously, neither country nor time is specified: in terms of setting it is redolent of many a Western, though its confining wall is an idiosyncratic touch, but it could be the US or Australian outback.
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As to time, it feels like the traditional early days of the Western genre, then it suddenly refers to “solar panels”. Is this temporal and geographic anonymity meant to suggest that the cruelties at issue are not limited to, or by, time and place?
The narrative moves back and forwards as it evokes Chelsea’s past pain and uncertain present. There is perhaps some inconsistency in rendering this. She has had very little education (it stopped after her mother’s death) but as the book’s narrator she has a surprising command of language, with only the odd illiteracy such as “ain’t” or “cos” to remind us of her limited schooling. Another result of being cut off from the greater world?
The Stranger’s aim proves to be not vengeance for the town’s dark and incarcerated past, but to open it to that greater world, which she will achieve in both literal and metaphoric terms. Granger has to be put in his place for this to happen. Hore maintains a lively hold over a complex set of events and characters, some of whom, such as good-hearted sex worker Pepper, remind one of their Westerns forebears, others more bizarre, but all in the interests of matters to ponder – and of a good read.